A cult classic mangaka among shoujo manga enthusiasts, Kaori Yuki has published several notable works in the genre, including Angel Sanctuary—my personal favorite. Her manga all have a markedly distinct flavor: gothic horror. This post is a celebration of that literary style and, more importantly, of Kaori Yuki.
The influence of gothic literature has accompanied Kaori Yuki’s career. Her early signature work, the Cain Saga (Count Cain and Godchild), that began her rise to Shoujo fame is a classic gothic horror. Set in Victorian England, Earl Cain solves various eerie mysteries, each often with an absurd macabre twist. Each mystery also unravels pieces to Cain’s own gruesome past. Of course, the air of romance pervades throughout each tale. The Gothic architecture, Victorian attitudes, and repressed but brooding sexual tension pay tribute to the romantic period and to the early days of the genre. Moreover, some chapters of Cain Saga bring to mind Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (albeit not set in the American South) in its tone, social awareness, the mystery embedded in the narrative, and an unhealthy, undying love (for the flesh beauty) that carries over to the cadaver.
Furthermore, Kaori Yuki emphasizes defining gothic sensibilities: the grotesque. At its core, gothic literature is about the grotesque—those that induce both empathy and disgust. The characters of Cain Saga are just that. Some are They are often beautifully sculpted, charming, but carry some socially unsavory obsessions, such as extreme sadism, incest, and the undead. References to notable grotesques in other fiction (not limited to gothic horror) are found throughout the chapters as well: Oedipus, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Alice in Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes, and Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Even Riff, a central character in Cain Saga, takes his name from the servant Riff Raff of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which draws motifs from the grotesque, pulp, and American Gothic.
Indeed, many of Kaori Yuki’s defining works can be read as reinventions. Of course, reinventions, particularly those of fairy tales and Disney favorites, are not a novel concept. Popular culture has a strange fascination with maturing, interpreting, and even corrupting our childhoods. In fact, the source stories may never have been that child-friendly to begin with, which easily lends them to revisions; the adult version is perhaps a rediscovery.
Reinvention, though, still happens in the form of thematic and genre shifts. In Hollywood, the recent trend in the adult-oriented dark fantasy is making them action adventures: Snow White and the Huntsman, Jack the Giant Slayer, and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunter. Kaori Yuki’s darker retelling, however, is more sincerely dark. Her recent major work, Ludwig Kakumei, is a grim take on classic fairy tales that casts a corpse collector as the prince in search of his fair live princess. The manga comfortably introduces elements of Gothic fiction to well-known innocent (at least on the surface) children’s stories. Prince charming is a necrophiliac, but a charismatic, lovable one. Further, the violence and cruelty displayed approaches those found in Schauerroman, but the sadism is always curbed slightly by black humor. In this way, Ludwig Kakumei romanticizes to a distorted extreme a simple concept: finding love. Yet, beneath all the depravity, a hint of earnest sweetness lingers. Horror and romance—the pleasant terror is the defining characteristic of gothic fiction.
A discussion of Kaori Yuki necessitates some thoughts on Angel Sanctuary, her signature and best work. Once again, aspects of gothic horror are readily seen. Much as in Cain Saga and Ludwig Kakumei, Kaori Yuki introduces grotesque characters as the central figures. The androgynous angels and demons are incredibly gorgeous creatures, but often mired in social taboos and sexual deviancy. Many hold distorted loves and admiration in such an extreme form that both fascinate and repulse the audience. In fact, the central plot follows the incestuous love between a brother and a sister, which transcends from forbidden love to a loud defiance of God. As grotesque as the characters may be, it is in that grotesqueness that we find romance, beauty, and love.
Moreover, aesthetics play an especially significant role in Angel Sanctuary, more so than they do in her other works. For example, Kaori Yuki plays with physical deformities for her grotesques. Corruption of the form is represented visually by science—large jars growing abominable angels or cyberpunk-esque electronic hardware, tubes, and wires that take on an organic feel. God takes on an almost robotic appearance reminiscent of Pakal (the Mayan astronaut). In her particular emphasis of the apparent freak, she blends ideas and notions from other genres and themes—notably cyberpunk and Judeo-Christian religion (among other mythologies)—into her gothic horror to not only offer her reinvention of those genres, but allow her her own take of gothic.
Thus, more than her excellent Gothic Lolita fashion or her inspired portrayal of goth subculture aesthetics—both of which are only tangentially (if it is even so) related to gothic horror—Kaori Yuki’s claim to the title, Queen of Gothic Manga, derives from an inherent understanding of gothic literature. She elegantly embeds such sensibilities into her manga to carve out her own niche in the shoujo manga world
Kaori Yuki has been one of my favorite mangaka ever since I first came upon her delicately gorgeous artbook. Knowing this, FoxyLadyAyame of the beautiful world invited me to write a post for a Manga Moveable Feast she hosted on Kaori Yuki.
My thoughts from years ago on some of Kaori Yuki’s manga: